December 9, 1999
Melanie Chalmers wrote:
My 16 year old Chinese foreign exchange student has asked me to explain why we call frankfurters "hot dogs." My dictionary has no information on the etymology. Can you help please?
That's a hot dog question.
Because I was familiar with the adjective hot dog, meaning fabulous and exciting, I assumed that the name of the frankfurter must have come from some 19th-century Americans who knew a good thing when they saw it. I was wrong.
It turns out that the dog in hot dog really refers to canines. German immigrants in the 1860s called frankfurters "hundewurst" (dog sausage) or "hundchen" (small dog). This may have quite innocently referred to the sausage's shape. However, some lexicographers connect "hündewurst", and the English equivalent hot dog, to the New York dog-meat scandal of 1843, in which dog-meat (and more) was found in New York meat packaging plants. By the 1850s cartoons and jokes abounded about the contents of New York's spiced sausage and other meats. In the late 1850s, the mincemeat used in sausage was referred to as "dog's paste." Cartoons from the era show dachshunds being fed into one end of meat grinders and sausage coming out the other side.
You wouldn't think people would eat a food that took its name from such a disgusting source, and in 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution banning Coney Island vendors from calling their product a hot dog. For some reason, the fearless Americans kept eating the mysterious spiced sausage, and they kept calling it the hot dog. The Chamber of Commerce couldn't hold out forever; in 1939 Coney Island celebrated the 50th anniversary of the hot dog on a bun with Hot Dog Day.
As for the interjection "hot dog!", it appears to have developed independently, possibly as a euphemism for "hot damn." The 'splendid' adjective hot dog, first attested in 1895, comes from student slang at the turn of the century. "He's as cute as a little red wagon and writes beautiful and I think he's hot dog." (McEvoy Show Girl 1928). All of today's extended uses of hot dog (and there are plenty) can be traced back to one of these turn-of-the-century meanings.
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